December 04, 2006
Over the last 15 years, Charalambides has quietly become an institution in American experimental music. Together, the core duo of Tom and Christina Carter (with the assistance of various third members) has amassed a huge discography full of songs that blur the lines between composition and improvisation, between noise and melody, and between the haunting and the downright scary.
Their penultimate album, 2004's Joy Shapes, represented both a changing of the guard and an artistic peak. Not only was it the last album that Tom and Christina recorded as a married couple, but it was also their last collaboration with former member Heather Leigh Murray. I can't help but feel that these upheavals affected the tone of their music. On Joy Shapes, Tom's guitar playing reached new levels of wooziness and dissonance, while Christina and Heather let out wails of banshee-like disembodiment and fury. On that album, the band's penchant for psychedelic droning became a vehicle for emotional bloodletting. I'd heard nothing like it before, and I haven't heard anything like it since.
After Joy Shapes, longtime Texans Tom and Christina moved to separate parts of the country, and Heather moved to Scotland. Fortunately, the Carters' commitment to making music together remains unabated. This year's Charalambides release, A Vintage Burden, may be the duo's most straightforward and conventionally pretty album yet. Although the duo tones down the screeching and wailing on Burden, the songs still retain the deliberate pacing and beautiful layering that characterizes all of Charalambides' work. In keeping with their prolific nature, the Carters already have a follow-up to Burden in the can!
I was fortunate enough to see Charalambides play at Emo's in Austin on November 15th. The last two times I'd seen them live, Tom and Christina played sitting down. They improvised their sets by leisurely coaxing unearthly sounds from their guitars with an array of pedals and prepared objects, from bows to bowls. This evening's set, though, was markedly different. Most of the songs the Carters played were recognizable as A Vintage Burden tracks, but they were played with an aggression that recalled Joy Shapes. Throughout the set, the Carters prowled the stage like hunters in search of game. Tom slashed away at his guitar, alternating between vast minor chords and harsh volleys of white noise. Christina pushed her voice as far as it could possibly go, until it sounded like she would burst into tears at any moment. At the end of the set, Tom threw his guitar on the ground and kicked his amplifier over. Watching them play gave me the same feeling of unexpected catharsis that listening to Joy Shapes did two years ago.
Before the show, Tom and Christina were kind enough to talk to me for about a half-hour about their music. You can read an edited transcript of the conversation below:
I listened to Joy Shapes and A Vintage Burden back-to-back recently, and noticed a striking difference in tone between the two records. I hope that you don't take this the wrong way, but Joy Shapes used to give me nightmares. [Christina laughs loudly] I had a very strange relationship with the record. I'd always listen to it late at night, because that's when I listen to Charalambides the most --- when I want to relax. I'd fall asleep to it, have a really weird dream, and then wake up right in the middle of one of the album’s most dissonant moments, such as the midsection of "Here Not There," or the midsection of "Natural Night." On the other hand, A Vintage Burden seems a lot more even-keeled. I was wondering if the differences between the two records --- the level of dissonance and the intensity of the vocals --- were intentional, or if they were prompted by circumstance.
Tom: It was sort of intentional. I think we both decided that we didn't want to make a record that was as intense as Joy Shapes...or maybe we wanted to make a record that was as intense, but not as dissonant or freaked-out. I always think that Joy Shapes was a much more consuming record. It was physically exhausting to work on in some ways, and I kinda wanted to avoid having that experience again. It didn't have anything to do necessarily with the kind of music I wanted to be on it, but I definitely wanted something that was a bit easier to listen to, though maybe just as complex, or equally arranged.
I definitely noticed a lot of layering on A Vintage Burden, so I don't think there was a difference in complexity. I read up on the making of Joy Shapes, and found out that it took about a year and a half to finish tweaking.
Tom: Yeah, that includes a lot of downtime. I think we started recording it in 2002, and I think I finally finished it in early 2004. It wasn't quite a year and a half; it was more like a year. A lot of that was due to mixing and things like that. At the time, I thought I was doing a lot of layering, but A Vintage Burden ended up being a lot more complex, at least on some songs. I was also kinda learning how to use ProTools during Joy Shapes. There was also a long period between recording the instrumental tracks and recording the vocals, partially because Christina was gone a lot.
How long did A Vintage Burden take, from gestation to completion?
Tom: A little less than a year...maybe eight months.
Christina: Yeah, that's what I was gonna say.
Tom, I know that you live in California now and Christina lives in Massachusetts. How did the two of you overcome your geographical separation to record A Vintage Burden?
Christina: I flew to California to visit Tom. For the new one we just made that isn't out yet, Tom flew to Massachusetts to visit me.
Are there any significant differences between the music on the new one and the music on A Vintage Burden?
Christina: Yeah, because for A Vintage Burden all the songs were written beforehand, and on this new one, nothing was written beforehand.
Tom: That’s not entirely true.
Christina: It's not?
Tom: No, one of the songs is old --- "Good Life."
Tom: Yeah, it’s seven years old...
Christina: ...but all the rest.
Tom: All the rest were improvised.
Was A Vintage Burden the first time that the two of you came to a session with prewritten material, or has that happened intermittently throughout your history?
Christina: It tends to happen every once in a while. Joy Shapes has prewritten stuff on it.
Tom: Yeah, but half of Joy Shapes' stuff we'd been playing in our sets --- more than half, maybe three-quarters of it. A fairly large chunk of the album was improvised, too. A lot of stuff was kinda composed on the four-track before that. You might have one guitar part, and you'll lay that down, lay something else down on top of it, and then arrange as you go.
How much of a role does editing play in your work? Have you ever had to whittle stuff down or take it out?
Christina: Oh, yeah. Totally!
Tom: I do that a lot more now, especially with the computer. It's a lot easier.
Christina: We don't have any rules, so there's stuff that completely live to tape, with no editing whatsoever, there's also stuff that's very highly edited, and everything in between.
Tom: On the new album, I edited a lot for length --- not A Vintage Burden, but the one we're working on right now. I don't do as much of going on and taking out one note here and there. I do it on some songs, but not many.
How does geography in general factor into the sound of your music? I know that in some of your earlier work, particularly Houston, there are lots of references to specific places. When I listen to your earlier work, I often visualize the arid, wide open spaces of Texas, and the tension that lies beneath the nothingness. Do you think that this musical atmosphere was a by-product of both of you living in Texas at the time? If so, do you think it still seeps into your music now that you’re both gone?
Christina: I think the references in Houston were more after the fact, as far as titling and things like that.
Tom: We would go back and impose that stuff on the music later.
Christina: Yeah. I don't know if the geography specifically affects the music.
Tom: Yeah, people have always thought that about the older stuff, but to me we were living in a big Southern city. Our experience was very urban, and most of it took place indoors, so in some sense it’s more of a suburban experience, though we occasionally got the intrusion of the city. I didn't really have any concept of wide open space until I moved to California and traveled through the Southwest. Before I did that, Houston was as far west as I'd gotten. If anything, I think our early work was more influenced by the heat. [laughter] If any geographical effects are taking place now, maybe it's a little more pastoral. Christina, you live in a very...not really rural, but rainy kind of small town, a very relaxed space. I live in a big western city, but it's also surrounded by lots of incredible natural beauty. I'm sure it contributes something to my mental state, if nothing else.
What prompted the both of you to move out of Texas in the first place? Since moving, have you found other like-minded musicians in your areas to record and play with? I've listened to a number of the collaborations that both of you have done with others, but I rarely find information about the other musicians. Do you collaborate through the mail, or do a lot of traveling to facilitate these collaborations?
Christina: I guess that's mainly more for Tom. I don't really collaborate with that many people. Where I live, there are a lot of really creative people, so there's certainly no shortage of like-minded people. I'm not really super into a whole bunch of different collaborations at this point.
Tom: Yeah, all the people I've been working with are all West Coast-based, for the most part. I don't really like collaborating by mail so much, so it just usually happens when I record with someone when they're around. If anything gets done by mail, it's mainly mailing edits back and forth, just to get an idea of what the other person wants and achieve a compromise in that way. I would say that in the Bay Area, there are tons of like-minded musicians. It's almost a difficult situation, in a way, because not only are they like-minded, but they're also pretty busy, so it's hard to get everybody on the same page as far as recording and playing...
Christina: ...but it seems like everybody there is really open to it.
Tom: Yeah, there's definitely a very collaborative sort of thing that goes on there. A lot of people that I play with are improvising musicians.
Christina: They don't need a commitment to an ongoing project that has to practice the same things.
Tom: Right. The only exception to that would be Badgerlore, which is a group I'm in with Rob Fisk, this guy who used to be in Deerhoof and Seven Year Rabbit Cycle; Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance; Pete from the Yellow Swans; and Clint Donaldson from Thuja and Skygreen Leopards. It's a pretty big band, and everybody's always doing other stuff, so it's a real trip to get down to doing stuff together. There is sort of a commitment there to rehearse somewhat. Some of us will rehearse and kind of fill everybody else in later. Otherwise, we just get together with somebody and record for a couple of hours, and edit that down to 30 or 40 minutes of music for release.
What do the two of you feel makes Charalambides' music what it is, as opposed to the music you make when you're working by yourselves or with other people? How do you account for that synergy?
Christina: For me, I think in Charalambides there's a great deal more flexibility than playing with other people, because of the range of Tom's guitar playing and what he's capable of doing --- from what would be considered conventional playing or rock playing to way-out stuff --- and there's a lot of guitarists that don't have that. That's fine, but the contrast between Tom's guitar playing and mine, I think, is also what makes it different.
Tom: I think we've been playing together for so long and shared so much of our musical evolution together that our languages are really complementary and similar in some ways...a lot of ways, actually. I think we just naturally fit together better. We always sort of know where the other person is, whereas in other collaborations you don't always know. You don't know sometimes what's going on...
Christina: ...or how the other person is feeling about what they're playing, or about what you're playing.
Tom: I know that I can go pretty much anywhere I want, and the music will follow a sort of internal logic because of the way we think. Yeah, there's a little more license in Charalambides' stuff.
Have the two of you ever listened to a piece of music you were working on and disagreed about which direction it should go in, and if so, how was it resolved?
Tom: We definitely have disagreed, but I don't think either one of us are into having a protracted battle about those things. I might want to leave something in that she wants to take out, and I'll go ahead and take that out, but only in order to stick up for something I want somewhere else. There's always a bit of that going on, but I don't think we have a super amount of disagreements.
Christina: Usually, if one of us has a strong opinion, we'll make the case for our opinion, and then it gets resolved.
Tom: Yeah, we tend to go by consensus. Eventually, we usually come to the same place. There's an instrumental track on A Vintage Burden that I originally mixed with some field recordings in it, but Christina wanted them taken out. I went ahead and did it, and listened to it, and could kinda follow where she was coming from about what it did to the record to have them there. The field recordings sort of diluted the direction that the record was going in. Eventually, we just come to an agreement when it comes to stuff like that.
As far as your guitar playing is concerned, what is a technical or musical goal that you would like to focus on in order to get to
"the next level"? What is something that you wish you could do on your instrument that you haven't done yet, or that you're still in the process of doing?
Christina: I wish I could disassociate taste from my playing. I wish I could somehow get to more of a point where it's more automatic, and not so filtered through conceptions of taste.
Tom: ...like your own taste?
Christina: I wish I didn't have this automatic thing of thinking toward what sounds right or sounds acceptable. I think I still have pretty conventional melodic or harmonic ideas, and I wish I could free the censor between my brain and my fingers more than it already is.
Tom: Sometimes, when I'm playing I feel like I'm trapped in a little box that I've made for myself, and I'm playing very much in the pocket of what I know how to do, and that anything I play outside of that is a mistake. I'd like to be able to...do kinda the same thing as Christina. I'd like to be able to encompass all of that fluidly, and go from one thing to the other without worrying about being in key or whatever.
Christina: Right, that's exactly what I was trying to talk about. There’s too much judgment happening naturally.
Tom: Yeah, a lot of it's subconscious.
Do you either of you have any specific musicians or artists who've reached that level, where there isn't as strong of a judgment mechanism between their brain and their fingers? Are there any people whom you look at and say, "They're where I'd like to be"?
Tom: I don't necessarily ever feel like I want to be in a place where another artist is, but I definitely feel like there are people who've kind of attained either a level of mastery where they encompass it, or they're able to throw up puzzles or obstacles for themselves, and then drive them into something else. I guess a good example of that would be John Coltrane or Albert Ayler. Almost any great jazz musician can do that, and make it seem completely effortless or flawless. Charlie Parker used to be able to hit a wrong note that would send him flying into another key, and he would work his way back. That's one example of somebody who sets up obstacles for themselves, and it's a little harder to do on the fly. I definitely think there are people who are able to put themselves into different situations, whether it's like switching instruments or changing your tuning or whatever.
That actually brings to mind something I read about one of Christina's recent solo records, Electrice. You had specifically made the record with all of the songs in the same key and in the same tuning. What musical goal were you trying to accomplish with that stricture, and do you feel that you were successful in achieving it? I personally love it, but you know... [laughter]
Christina: I've read a few reviews where they said it was a gimmick, and it really wasn't a gimmick. I wasn't really trying to accomplish a specific goal. It was just what I was in the mood to do, so the idea came to me really naturally. I just followed the idea. It seemed like a good idea. I kinda wondered subconsciously how different or distinct I could make a song or how I could make the same song sound distinctly different...and, at the same time, how similar they could be while still being different. I feel like I accomplished that, because there are two songs that sound very similar, but have a very different feeling, and then two songs which sound really different than the others. It wasn't really an intellectual gimmick. It was more like a feeling about sound and about how that's sort of what living is all about --- things being so similar yet so different, or even people being very different from one another, but being so similar...or how different one day can be from the next. It's not like I wrote out a thesis about it. [laughter] It's just the way I think about things.
Tom, have you done anything on your own recently where there's been an underlying concept that you applied either before or during the recording process?
Tom: Not so much. Usually that kind of stuff happens during editing, if at all. The only time I think I've ever recorded anything with a concept is solo stuff, and I usually don't do that with collaborations because they just go where they go. I think the last record I did like that was Glyph, and the concept was very vague. I wanted to put a lot of acoustic stuff on there. I guess I often conceive of my records spatially, and a lot of times they’re symmetrical --- two shorter pieces bracketing a long piece, or two long pieces and a short piece in the middle. I conceive Charalambides records like that sometimes, but I would say that it's very vague and general.
How far are you along on your current tour?
Tom: We're about halfway through it.
What are some of the most memorable experiences, good or bad, that you've had while on this tour? How long has it been since your previous tour?
Tom: The last tour we did was in England, and it was during the summer. It hasn't been that long. There haven't really been any terrible experiences on this tour, aside from having back problems the whole time. They're kind of constant anyway, but the timing was just really terrible. I really fucked up my back, and basically couldn't lift anything. It was hard to move. I was having some serious problems during the first week, but since then it's kinda gone down to a dull ache. [laughter] As far as good experiences, I think all the shows have been good in a way. We had a really good show in New York. That was probably my favorite so far, because the energy was really good.
In what venue did it take place?
Tom: The Knitting Factory, in their little downstairs bar. They've got a bunch of different rooms in that place, and I think we played the middle room.
Christina: I guess Northampton, because it seemed like everything there was going wrong, but then we sort of opened things up.
Tom: We kinda pulled it together.
Christina: Having a piano to play in a few places. I didn't know it was going to be there; it just happened to be there, so it was a nice surprise. It's sort of funny: I feel like I'm in sort of a mid-tour slump, which happens to coincide with being in Texas. [laughter] It makes being here more difficult to deal with, because there's so much history to experience and distract you. There's the whole question of how you feel around people who know you in a certain way, as opposed to how you feel about yourself in the present. This might be memorable for how it affects the rest of the tour. I think that moving around on stage and trying new things this time that you've never tried before has been really cool.
What have you tried on this tour that you haven't before?
Christina: I've never played piano in front of people before. I guess I used to stand up when I used to play in Houston sometimes, and I haven't done that for a long time. I kinda felt nailed to the chair for a long time.
Tom: It's the first time you've ever really stood up and just sang without playing guitar.
Christina: That's not true. I used to do that on those Siltbreeze tours.
Tom: Right...but I mean that it's the first time you've done it and sort of emoted.
When I play live, there's a difference in how I feel physically and in how the music comes out when I play sitting down as opposed to when I'm standing up. It's like a blend of more nervousness and more confidence. I was wondering if there's a psychological difference for you when you adjust the way you play in manners like that.
Christina: Definitely. It was pretty exciting to stand up and sing for the first time like that on this tour, but now that I've done it a couple of times, I don't want to get to the point where I expect myself to do it every time.
Tom: When you do something the first time, it's exciting and new, but after you've done it a couple of times it starts to become a shtick or something.
Christina: How do you avoid that?
Tom: Yeah, how do you make it natural...
...as opposed to routine?
Tom and Christina [in unison]: Yeah!
Tom: I think tonight we're going to stand up, just because we can't find chairs. [laughter]
I have one more question, and then I'll get out of your hair. What is one thing that has excited the both of you lately that has nothing to do with music?
Tom: Oh, my. [Christina laughs] It's hard to think of something that doesn't have anything to do with music. [more laughter] We're each waiting on the other person to say something.
Christina: I don't think there is anything! Everything's pretty much related to music.
Any books or movies?
Tom: Well, I've been reading a lot of William Vollmann, and that's been pretty interesting. When I first started reading his work, I found it really annoying and impenetrable, but once I read more I started getting into the swing of things a bit. His most famous book is probably The Royal Family, which is like a private-eye novel/social-history fiction of prostitution in San Francisco. He also wrote a book called The Rainbow Stories, which about the skinhead scene in the mid-'80s in San Francisco. There's also Survival Research Laboratories, and various countercultures. He also writes a lot about violent behavior.
Christina: I sort of relate everything to each other, so I don't think there's anything that I'm excited about that isn't related to music. Animals? [laughter]
Yeah, talk about animals!
Christina: I get a lot of happiness from watching animals, dogs and cats. That's something that's really immediate. It's directly experienced, and it doesn't have any relation to anything else, really.
Well, I think that's it. Thanks for letting me interview you! I hope it wasn't too much of an ordeal.
Christina: No, it was fine!
Charalambides' latest record, A Vintage Burden, and Christina Carter's solo album Electrice, are both out now on Kranky.